On the Line – Volunteering for the Asylum Seekers

Day 1

It was a 15-hour day – more than 13 hours at the detention center meeting with clients, and then a few hours back at the hotel regrouping with the team and entering case notes into the electronic filing system.

What struck me today: the incredible strength of the women I met with. They have lived through unspeakable horrors, travelled dangerous paths – with small children – to get to safety, been placed into detention, and sometimes abused by various government representatives. And then today they were asked to sit down with me, a stranger. And I asked them to trust me, and to tell me the most horrific, intimate details of their lives. Stories that, in some instances, could get them killed just because they were shared.

And the amazing thing? They did that. They placed their trust in me and my colleagues. They did it without question. They told their stories, with their children on their laps. Children who, shockingly, slept through their interviews – even though the interviews were sometimes one to two hours long.  That is perhaps what struck me most of all. Regardless of the time of the day, the children slept. Even when it wasn’t close to being naptime, they slept. All I can assume is that they were exhausted from the journey and the trauma that they’d been through, and that they are still experiencing.

And that was Day 1 of Dilley, Texas. Amazing women. Amazing children. And I hope their journey to a new life in the US feels a bit more hospitable and hopeful than it did yesterday because of the pro bono service that our team provided.

photo of the facility, from as close as photos were allowed.
photo originally posted on Women of the Fifth 

Day 2

Exhausted. Today’s word of the day from Dilley is exhausted. We started the day a little later than yesterday, with the promise of also finishing earlier. But I’ve just arrived to my hotel room; it is 11pm and I still have work to do before bed so I can wake up and do it again tomorrow.

All my clients today were intense. They had incredible stories of awful things that they had overcome.  Some had been witnesses to unspeakable crimes, including torture and murder; some were victims of rape, domestic violence, extortion, and death threats. Many had lived through the fear of having their loved ones threatened, harmed, killed or coerced into joining violent gangs. Their love for their children was palpable. We shared tears. And I reassured them that they’d done the right thing for their kids by taking the chance to come here; I knew that had I been in their shoes, I’d have done the same thing.

But perhaps the most meaningful thing I did today was the least personal. I gave the “Intake Charla” presentation (charla means chat in Spanish) to a bunch of newly arrived women and children. My goal was to explain who we (the lawyers) were: that we didn’t work for the government, that we were a bunch of volunteers who had come from all over the country (and even internationally!) just to be there to volunteer our time to work for them and to serve them. And that most of all, I said, I wanted to say welcome to the United States. Even though they probably had doubts at times, we were all genuinely happy that they were here.

Then we filled out some initial paperwork and I saw in their faces the faces of people that I love: family, friends, jokesters, worried Mamas, classmates, colleagues – people I know and love dearly were mirrored in the expressions of these women.

Today, my clients smiled with me; laughed with me; cried with me; we joked about my Spanish accent; we joked about their funny Spanish accents and our struggles at times to understand each other; I colored with their children; I taught a little boy to play “I Spy” (a favorite game of Eleanor – my daughter) to get him to stop crying, relax, tell me his name and come out of his shell; I talked about how silly the cartoons on the tv were (there is a children’s play area in the legal consult area for the kids but the only thing to do there is watch tv) with a couple of girls from Brazil who were mesmerized that I could speak Portuguese with them; I instructed little girls to draw beautiful butterflies for me so I could discuss tough topics with their mothers without their ears focused on what we were saying; I drafted legal pleadings. Today I lawyered, and I mothered other people’s children. And it was all equally important, needed, and appreciated.

It was a tough, exhausting day. And yet… I look forward to doing it all again tomorrow.

Day 3

“Hay que seguir las reglas!”

“You have to follow the rules!” 

Many have asked how they can help, so today I thought I would share a little bit about The Rules. Because we are in a federal detention center (I’m sorry, a residential center) there are a lot of rules – layers of rules, rules of distinctly different origin – and they all must be followed.

Baby Jail Rules. Rules for the lawyers:

1. No open toed shoes. 2. No sleeveless tops. 3. No cell phones. 4. No Apple watches (can I tell you how naked I feel without my watch and phone?). 5. No giving anything to the clients – not even food or water. (For example, today I bought two coloring books and boxes of crayons for the children to play with, and I was not allowed to bring them into Baby Jail.) 6. No touching the clients – no physical consolation of crying children or clients, no hugs of support, no hands on a grieving person’s shoulder. No. Touching. 7. No entry without ID, metal detector, being wanded, signing in and out of the facility. 8. No leaving the legal services trailer unaccompanied. For any reason. 9. No photos on the premises. No pictures of the Baby Jail, no pictures of the grounds, no pictures of the driveway, no pictures at all. 10. No sitting in the legal trailer without actively working with clients – if we are seen taking a break of any sort, sometimes even working at our computers on cases – we could be asked to go home. Our day was to be non-stop clients, all the time.

Baby Jail Rules. Rules for the clients:

These are a bit harder to ascertain, but I’ll try. 1. it seems that the clients need paperwork to go a lot of places, kind of like hall passes. 2. Wear your photo ID at all times – this is how clients check into and out of our legal services trailer. Even the kids. 3. Mothers must keep their kids under control at all times – but as there isn’t a lot for the kids to do, this can be a challenge. I’m sure there are other rules, but I don’t think I really understand them all. Perhaps I’ll ask tomorrow.

Dilley, Texas Rules:

1. Don’t drink the water – it contains heavy metals. 2. This a town of about 3000 people – the best restaurant is Bobby’s Tacos, which is actually a food truck. Learn how to get from Baby Jail to the food truck for a lunch break and opportunity to look at a cell phone/email. The nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes away – stock up on bottled water, and whatever else one might want – but don’t share it with your clients!

It may seem that these rules are tough, and sometimes I think about complaining, but then I remember that there are another set of rules that many of these women lived under before coming here, and those rules are why the women came here.

Here are some Rules That Might Make You Seek Asylum:

1. Do whatever your husband/partner/boyfriend says. Anything. Even if you don’t want to. 2. See rule number 1 – now imagine that this also includes having sex (or you’ll be raped), giving up custody of your children (or they’ll be murdered), quietly accepting a beating (or being beaten again…). You get the idea. 3. See rule number 2, but now imagine that the rule-maker isn’t your husband/partner/boyfriend but is instead your father/brother. 4 See rule number 3, but now imagine that the rule-maker isn’t your father/brother, but is instead a gang member, someone you may or may not know. 5. Don’t look at someone the wrong way, or you will be killed (you will never know exactly what “the wrong way is”). 6. Don’t overhear things, or you will be killed. 7. Don’t see things, or you will be killed. 8. Don’t talk to the wrong person, or you will be killed. 9. Don’t talk to the police, or you will be killed. 10. Don’t go to a judge, or you will be killed. 11. Don’t wear the wrong clothes, or you will be killed (also, you will never know exactly what “the wrong clothes” are). 13. Don’t be a snitch, or you will be killed. 14. If you are lucky, you won’t be killed for violating Rules 1 – 13. Instead you might be able to right your wrongs by allowing yourself, or your daughter, to be raped instead.

In light of the reality these women describe, I have realized a couple of things. First, I’m quite content to not wear my sandals because all things considered, life isn’t so bad. More importantly, these women have essentially lived in a jail for significant portions of their lives. They came to the United States seeking better conditions – for themselves, and for their children. They deserve this. After hearing the stories, I did (which will likely give me nightmares for a long time to come), I say – without hesitation – these women are the bravest people I have ever met in my life. AND THEY DESERVE BETTER.

Reflection

I am home now, writing this post from the comfort of my living room. I didn’t write an update yesterday after my last day at Dilley because I was so tired and simply didn’t have time.

My experience at Dilley was incredibly impactful – for me, and hopefully for those that I served while I was there. First and foremost, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to CARA Pro Bono Project with whom I volunteered, and to those who fundraised to cover the out-of-pocket costs of our pro bono efforts and allowed me to join their team and share in this experience.

I am also incredibly grateful and appreciative to the women who I represented while in Dilley. They trusted me, they opened up to me, they shared their most horrific experiences with me. Sometimes they were frustrated with me – I pushed them to share more, to remember more, to be more specific, to tell me over and over again about the same events from their past. They had every right to be frustrated. But that was rare, and they were never angry.  Instead they were patient and gracious with me. They understood that I was doing my best to help them – and they did everything they could to help me put forth my best efforts on their behalf.

I entered this experience (and physically entered the Baby Jail) fully prepared to see evil in the hearts and eyes of the guards, of the asylum officers, of everyone involved in the detention of our clients. I didn’t find that. The guards and asylum officers who I interacted with were kind, had a sense of humor, they were humble, they were respectful – they were human. One even confided in me that he understood that the detention center could close tomorrow, and while that would mean he would no longer have a job, he was thrilled to see the influx of attorneys there and hoped that in fact he would lose his job in the very near future. I was surprised to hear this, and it was very encouraging.

The asylum officers also reflected a wide range of humanity – certainly some were better than others. I had the opportunity to observe the work of one asylum officer in particular when I accompanied a client to her Credible Fear Hearing. This asylum officer was empathetic and kind; she did her job professionally and as she was trained to do, but she was not without emotion. She tried to make my client (who was sobbing – at times uncontrollably) as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. In fact, my client thanked her at the end of the interview for listening to her story, for recording it, for documenting it, and in doing so recognizing the reality of her situation – whatever the outcome.

And that brings me to the women. Their stories. I’m still processing all that I heard. I already knew a decent amount about MS-13 and other gangs from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and many of the other countries these women came from. And yet…I had no idea.

The things I heard were utterly shocking and horrifying – I want to share some of the specifics but must also preserve anonymity and confidentiality. I cannot speak about the countries that they came from other than to say that my work involved Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking clients, and that the clients in Dilley hail from many regions of the world. I met with mothers aged nineteen to their fifties, and kids from about two years old to thirteen or fourteen.  Many were from humble backgrounds, but some were business owners and quite educated and wealthy – their relative success being what made them targets of violent gangs.

These women had been raped, beaten, told they were worthless and had less value than garbage; they witnessed others being shot – sometimes their own family, and they were told that if they spoke to anyone they or their loved ones would be killed. They feared the kidnapping rape, torture, or murder of their children. They’d heard stories of parents of kidnapped children receiving packages containing fingers of their children, as threats. They sometimes heard the screams of people as they were being raped or tortured. They knew of people who had been kidnapped and never again returned. Sometimes these people were their family members. They saw children being set on fire.

These women rarely felt they could go to the authorities to report these crimes. When they did report crimes, they were ignored, or told that no one cared. Judges would offer to provide police protection to witnesses who came forward – but only if sexual favors were provided to the judge in exchange. They’d lost all hope in their legal systems to protect them. They were victims of political corruption, of callousness, of gang violence, and broken legal systems – -n short, they were victims of what happens when there is no rule of law. They were petrified, they were unable to sleep. Sometimes their own parents had told them to get out of their countries to save themselves. They worried about those they’d left behind – and sometimes those people were their own children. Women had to make unimaginable decisions about which children to bring (decisions informed by which of their children were sufficiently healthy to make the journey, which were old enough to handle the days, weeks, or even months, of the incredibly difficult trip). Sometimes they had to think about how many people they could afford to save, and then choose those that were most at risk to accompany them – forever haunted by doubts about their choices, and fears for those left behind. And this was all before their journey began. The journey itself, which they had just endured, had been full of the same threats they were fleeing.

These women were nothing short of inspiring and brave and courageous. During our legal consults I asked them so many questions, made them delve deep into their stories, share all the details, and then do it over and over again. At times, I would have to tell them that while their stories were horrific, they likely did not rise to the level of what was required to obtain asylum. I would push them to see if they could remember additional details that would help us with their case – and very much to their credit – they would answer us honestly, sometimes crying and telling us that, “No, there was nothing else.” They said this even though I’m sure they understood that if they lied and told us more, it might advance their case. Their honor was incredibly important to them – so for all the doubters out there, who think that asylum seekers are liars taking advantage of the system, I am absolutely convinced, from my first-hand experience and observations, that this is an extreme minority. These women were so emotional, so raw, so clearly traumatized during our conversations – and so incentivized to lie. And. Yet. They. Didn’t… They. Told. The. Truth… The whole ugly truth, even when it wasn’t to their advantage.

I want to be absolutely clear about the people I met. They came from diverse backgrounds, but they were all loving of their children, worried about protecting their families, absolutely committed to telling the truth, and brave enough to try to start completely new lives, despite the incredible challenges of language barriers, and having no financial resources. Some confided that they’d never wanted to come, but they had no other choice. I heard them. I saw them. I respect them. I believe them. I respect them. And they are exactly the type of people I’d wish to have as fellow American citizens.

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